Folk psychology  

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Folk psychology (also known as common sense psychology, naïve psychology or vernacular psychology) is the set of assumptions, constructs, and convictions that makes up the everyday language in which people discuss human psychology. Folk psychology embraces everyday concepts like “beliefs”, "desires”, “fear”, and “hope".


Folk psychology as a theory

A theory is a group of principles or rules which are used to explain how a certain phenomenon works. Folk psychology is interpreted as a theory when the ‘common sense’ perceptions of one’s daily life (such as those of pain, pleasure, excitement, anxiety, etc.) are interpreted as principles that are used to explain mental states. When our ordinary view of mental states is interpreted as a ‘common sense’ or folk theory of mind, it is referred to as the theory theory. The theory of mind consisting of our ‘common sense’ understanding mental states can be interpreted two distinct ways, in an external sense and an internal sense.

Falsification of folk psychology as a theory

Any of these theories can be false. If the external view turns out false, one possible outcome could be that things such as beliefs, pains, pleasures, desires, etc. do not exist. This view is called eliminativism and it has been considered for decades. Something which serves as a problem for the internal view is called simulation theory. How simulation theorists explain this act of internally making predictions is that we do not have the ability to theorize about the mental states of others, but instead, what we do is simulate the mental processes of others. If simulation theory were true however, the external view of folk psychology would still be able to exist, because simulation theory would go along with the idea that ordinary speech about mental states constitutes a theory of mind.


As a set of folk theories, folk psychology is a passively (sometimes actively) gathered and occasionally invoked compendium of day-to-day non-critical postulation. Likewise, all folk theory combine to serve as a code of wisdom, assorted from experiences of a limited but "adequate" level of confirmation. In principle, folk theorization is a complex, haphazard activity of the mind in a struggle to inform actions, opinions or a concept of the world, based on the joined account of known fact, hearsay and personal experience; or rather, correlating the outward aspects of human behaviors, mental states (sometimes linked to broader conditions), and a register of situations, to certain attitudes and developments.

An important hallmark of a folk theory, as such, is its not being subject to the rigorous experimentation characteristic of empirical science. One could say, however, that folk psychology resembles heuristics, specifically a sort of people-heuristics, albeit with less inclination to revision. Folk theories will commonly exhibit a logically deductive structure, suggesting a close relationship to schools of reason and rationality. In this light, folk theory could be viewed as a "lazy mind's science," or a precursor to formal human examination.

Folk theory typically influences people's value judgments and ultimately their social action. Evolutionarily, acquiring a rudimentary catalog of "common sense" psychological knowledge that is serviceable when presented with limited time for social maneuvering is quite handy, but not without its peril. Reinforcement of a cherished folk theory may be erroneously taken as proof of principle, and transit to the realm of belief. Crystallization of folk theory may prevent adoption of a more informed truth realized only later. The overwhelming nature of the resulting dissonance might then to lead to the rejection of broader fact.


Folk psychology is seen as manifested in common sense, proverbs and metaphors as well as in false friends, homeopathy or other naive analogies and etymologies, etc. In fact, the theory of causation, that of cause and effect is also part of folk psychology, and does not constitute science.


Many philosophers, under the influence of Wittgenstein and Sellars, have denied that the alleged theoretical entities posited by folk psychology ("beliefs", "desires", etc.) have any causal status. According to the theory-theory, a typical causal or counterfactual generalization (or law) of folk psychology would be characterized schematically as follows:

If X wants that Y, and believes that Z is necessary for Y, then X will do Z.

If, as Wittgenstein claims, propositional attitudes are not causes, then this would turn out to be meaningless. However, it is not clear on this analysis what properties such mental states do have, if not that of causality.

In the view of Daniel Dennett<ref>Daniel C. Dennett (1996), The Intentional Stance (6th printing), Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, ISBN 0-262-54053-3 {First published 1987).</ref>, X wants that Y and believes that Z is necessary for Y just in case it can be predictively attributed these beliefs and desires. He maintains this even if it is a simple animal, such as a frog, or a non-living object, such as a robot. In this, he declines to identify beliefs or desires with specific natural kinds. Thus, our folk-psychological talk about beliefs and desires is essential and frequently true, but does not concern entities in the brain.

Another perspective: It has been argued (during past academic dialog) that individuals, beginning at some infantile stage, are responding in an adaptive manner to the world around us; more specifically the people in it. The stated anecdotal evidence is the seemingly uncanny (naive, unconscious) tendency of a child to try to manipulate those raising them to satisfy their needs/wants. And, often being incredibly successful at it. In the case of abuse and neglect, this development is contaminated and twisted, leaving the child with very dysfunctional relational and behavioral patterns--complete with often pathological explanations and justifications for their actions and emotive states.

If such explanation and analysis is valid, it would appear most likely to fit within development constructs, Therefore, the best definition(s) and understanding of it may well be found or inferred via developmental theories. As such, it is not then necessarily evolutionary (in a purely random or macro evolutionary sense), nor locked in stasis at a particular stage of development. Rather, it is likely subject to complex changes ranging from further life experiences in general, education both formal and informal, and, especially, the social norms and pressures, including interpretive explanations of those groups.

Another inference is that we all are practicing our own unique "brand" of naive psychology virtually all the time. Social animals that we are, we are both influenced and influencing each other in overt and subtle ways (conscious and unconscious). The worst possible personal condition then is that we compound our very likely and common interpretive errors with the errors of others and warp our perception of reality by being naive to this then "normal" naive state. Awareness of this naive state and any possibility of directed (micro evolutionary) adaptive growth is significantly enhanced by an admission of its personal and pervasive probability--and hindered by any and all denial that we are somehow magically not subject to it.

Rejections and responses to folk psychology

Folk psychology relies largely on the clause of ceteris paribus, i.e. “all else being equal”. For example, if John was hungry, and John had a bowl of mashed potatoes, and John thought eating those mashed potatoes would satisfy his hunger, then John would eat the mashed potatoes, ceteris paribus. Many philosophers say that using ceteris paribus makes a statement vacuous because it makes a statement incapable of being disconfirmed. For example, they would take the sentence “If Pooh were hungry and had some honey, Pooh would eat the honey, ceteris paribus” as “If Pooh were hungry and had some honey, Pooh would eat the honey, unless he didn’t”. Jerry Fodor would argue that those philosophers would be defining ceteris paribus in the wrong way. Fodor says that a claim in commonsense psychology relies on ceteris paribus in the same way that any hard science would. Fodor states, “For surely ‘Ceteris paribus, a meandering river erodes its outside bank’ means something like ‘A meandering river erodes its outside bank in any nomologically possible world where the operative idealizations of geology are satisfied.’ That this is, in general, stronger than ‘P in any world where not not-P’ is certain. So if, as it would appear, commonsense psychology relies upon its ceteris paribus clauses, so too does geology.” Clearly, Fodor’s statement is not a vacuous one.

Many philosophers believe that if Folk Psychology is to be a theory, there should be generalizations to be taken from the theory and used. If these generalizations really are as common-sense as folk psychology would lead one to believe, then people should be aware of them, but in actuality, there are few of these generalizations that can be held to be true.

There are philosophers who believe that the ontology of folk psychology, meaning the idea of beliefs, desires, intentions and so on, are so incorrect that in time, modern science will overwrite and eliminate what we know as folk psychology. These philosophers are known as eliminative materialists, one of their leading defenders being Paul Churchland. Eliminative materialism states that the mental states that folk psychologists believe to be part of the mind, such as beliefs, desires, and intentions don’t actually exist. There are three main arguments which Churchland uses against folk psychology:

  1. Folk psychology, as a whole, does not explain very much
  2. The theory is stagnant and has not developed much throughout its history
  3. It seems unlikely that the categories of which folk psychology speaks (beliefs, desire intentions, etc.) will “reduce” to physical categories, meaning scientists will not be able to scientifically explain those categories, hence, they will not be scientifically proven

Tim Crane refutes each of these claims in his book The Mechanical Mind. In Churchland’s first claim against folk psychology, he states that folk psychology cannot explain things such as “[T]he nature and dynamics of mental illness, the faculty of creative imagination… [and] the nature and psychological function of sleep.” Crane asks why a theory pertaining to beliefs and desires should try to explain things such as mental illness and sleep. He also suggests that a reason for the theory being so stagnant throughout the ages is that it is well established, rather than lacking the ability to evolve. Finally, in response to Churchland’s third argument, Crane says that even if folk psychology’s categories are not explainable by physics, there should be no reason why it should be necessary for it to be explained by physics in the first place to be true. As many philosophers believe, there may be many things explainable beyond the realm of physics.

Folk physics

Folk physics has been, to a large extent, discredited and shown to be thoroughly inadequate in providing robust explanations of various physical phenomena. This, of course, raises the question of how folk psychology would fare in this respect and this matter is a subject of lively debate in the philosophy of mind.

Philosophers take various attitudes toward the possibility of vindicating / extending folk psychology by allowing its theoretical terms (e.g. 'belief' 'desire' etc.) to play a role in serious scientific theorizing.

Among the advocates of such a possibility, Jerry Fodor is surely the most famous (for a defense of this view see his 1987 book "Psychosemantics"). The other extreme is exemplified by eliminative materialists, such as Paul and Patricia Churchland and Stephen Stich. Although Stich no longer considers himself an eliminativist, his book, "From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science: The Case Against Belief" generated much attention for eliminative materialism.

Daniel Dennett's Intentional Stance theory can be viewed as a middle ground, as he concedes some aspects of eliminativism (arguing that folk psychological entities cannot be reduced to natural kinds in the brain) whilst still seeing the value of folk psychological concepts as both essential to our understandings of and dealings with other people, and as grounded in real regularities in human behavior.

See also

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